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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Clearing Mental Clutter

Go from this...

To this.

Why is so hard to figure out what deserves our attention? We come back to the fact that we don’t have a brain… we have a brain system. (For more info, click here.) And the brain system has subsystems. Here’s how it breaks down with the three brain networks involved in attention:

  1. Alertness Network, which constantly monitors what’s coming in through our senses and is always on the lookout for the unusual stimulus
  2. Orienting Network, which causes us to turn toward, look at, listen for and sniff the unusual to gain more information about it (this is the “Oh, look at the bright and shiny object” moment)
  3. Executive Network, which controls the decision of what to do about the unusual stimulus, whether to direct sustained attention on it or ignore it in favor of what we were previously focused on.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain involved in the Executive Network’s decisions about what to do in response to a stimulus. The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that anticipates the future, evaluates possible outcomes, plans, discerns what’s important and what isn’t, and is capable of delaying immediate satisfaction for the sake of a larger, long-term gain.  

If your prefrontal cortex is not available, you literally cannot decide what to focus on.

What would disable your prefrontal cortex? If you recall, that would be a limbic system takeover – the same thing that is behind most writing resistance (if you don’t recall, click here). And what causes limbic system takeovers? Fear, threats and stress.

The fear of missing something important and the stress of having too much to do, too much information to attend to, and no way to choose what you can safely ignore causes your limbic system to take over. And your limbic system taking over makes it impossible for your Executive Network to decide what to do, what information to attend to, and what to ignore. A classic Catch-22.

The only way to break this vicious cycle is to consciously, intentionally choose to relax. In other words, you choose to focus on nothing but your breathing and let your body go limp. Relaxing will bring your prefrontal cortex back online. (For more info about how this works, click here.) And as soon as you’ve got your prefrontal cortex online, you can choose what to let go of, what you will not do, what information you will not process, what you will ignore.

When you feel so frenzied, you can’t figure out which of the hundred things clamoring for your attention you should do next, do nothing. Relax. The world isn’t going to stop turning if you take 5 to 10 minutes to reboot your prefrontal cortex and remember what’s truly important.

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